Happy birthday, Susan Hare

Facebook has just told me that today is Susan Hare’s birthday. I didn’t get her anything but that’s less because I’m mean, more because she doesn’t exist.

She’s real, or at least she is to me, but there is no such person. Susan is an old and dear friend of mine, she’s just completely fictitious. A very, very long time ago I created her for a script that I liked very, very much but never went anywhere. Shortly afterwards I popped her into another script that never went anywhere. I’ve no complaints about my writing career but along the way you do create a lot of projects that fizzle out for one reason or another and Susan Hare is in many of mine.

I’m only now wondering if she’s bad luck.

I think initially I just really liked her name. I can’t remember the projects and certainly not the sequence but initially I thought I was just reusing the name and that there was no other connection. Susan Hare was definitely about 8 years old in one story, I’m certain she was in her 30s in another, and so on.

But after she’d been in – I’m guessing here – four completely different scripts, I realised that with just a teeny bit of effort, it could be the same person. That 8-year-old could conceivably have grown to be that 30-year-old. If that were so then this woman had lived a hell of a life and somehow that just made her more real to me. It made me like her enormously.

I wish I could remember what the idea was when I created a Facebook page for her. I know it was work but I’ve not a clue what it was for. I’ve also not a clue what the account password is so I can’t delete her. I’m slightly scared to look at her timeline in case she’s been living a life there without me.

I do remember this, though. I used her name when I was working on a magazine and this fictitious online woman had an impact on the real world. I mean, it’s a very small impact, but she had one.

I was features editor on a technology magazine called PC Direct and in a company that had two or three other titles covering similar topics. This was pre-internet but it was far from pre-online and all the magazines had various services and forums. Each time a new one launched, all the staff were asked to join in and chat so that readers could contact us and that there could be a lively discussion on there.

It was really quite hard to find anything to say, though. If you were supposed to discuss a topic your magazine had covered, well, probably you wrote it and certainly you read it so there wasn’t much else to add. If someone else’s article in some other magazine was interesting, you’d already called across the office to them to say so.

Very quickly, then, conversations were started up by staff solely to get something moving. All three magazines included columns answering reader questions and all the online forums did too, so we were encouraged to ask technical questions. It wasn’t directly stated that you had to use pseudonyms but it was a bit obvious: you couldn’t be represented in one forum as a great technology expert and in the next be asking how to spell “Excel”.

All I did that was apparently unusual is that I created two pseudonyms. Just the names: you’re used to threads on Facebook and Twitter now where there are photo profiles but this was before all that, this was solely text. Not even a bio.

Yes, I used Susan Hare for one. But remember, I really like her so I made her contributions to the forum be as witty and clever as I am capable of: I would take twenty minutes to craft a comment from her.

And with my drama head on, if you’ve got one smart woman character, it felt natural to have a dumb man one. Nothing to do with any gender comment or opinion, just the need to explore a range and having only two characters to play with.

I can’t remember his name. But I can remember that I used to spend even longer writing his comments because I made him illiterate. He was both illiterate and a very, very bad typist.

The thing is, though, this was in a forum answering technology problems so I gave both of my characters identical trouble.

I think this took place over several weeks and it was damn hard to have them take answers from editors and somehow not quite solve their problem, to have them come back for more help.

But initially both characters got lots of attention. People on staff and just readers passing by would do their best to help them equally.

After a while, though, that changed. In the end, the only person even talking to my dumb man character was the editor of the magazine and he was trying so hard but you could see he wanted to weep.

Whereas over with Susan Hare, this fast and clever and funny woman, everybody piled in to help at first – and everybody stayed to the end. Discussions with her were getting to be ten and twenty times longer than the ones with my poor sap with precisely the same technology difficulties.

I keep mentioning the end because there was one. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t really plan any of this: I just created two characters to see what wold happen.

Until one lunchtime I was in the office kitchen where that editor was talking with a friend about the forums. And these two men were concluding that Susan Hare fancied the editor. They were serious. And they thought she was too.

If I actually fancied him, I would tell you now and I’d have told him then. If Susan had set out to make him think anything of the sort, I wouldn’t have a story to tell you now. But she didn’t. There was not one word that ever implied any interest outside her technical problem, not a single one.

You’re not surprised. But back then, I’m guessing early 1990s, I really was. I’d created this funny, sparky character who had come alive and that made me proud. These male editors and, it turns out, plenty of other men on the forum, had projected fancying onto her. That made me embarrassed to be male.

But I like to think Susan and I have put this behind us. We don’t talk so much anymore but, as I say, she doesn’t exist. Still, Susan Hare: many happy returns.

TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.

The second and third best writing tools

The first best writing tool is whatever you like. Even a pen. I’m not prejudiced. But I was planning to talk to you about what has become my second best, the thing that I rely on daily to get things done. And I was going to tell you about this specifically because it’s software that just got a major, major update.

It’s OmniFocus 3 for iOS and, actually, you can read my review of it on AppleInsider if you want details. That’s to say, if you want details plus a pixel of criticism amidst a near gush of adoration. This is a To Do app that I’ve become dependent on but whether as a someone who’s used previous versions for seven years or as someone who just appreciates great design, the new OmniFocus is remarkable.

What’s great is that it helps me clear out time to write, it makes me handle everything, spin every plate, and get me the gaps I need to work in.

This new version only works on iPads and iPhones. Later this year the Mac version will get this update too. And at some point there’ll be a version on the web. But there isn’t and seemingly won’t ever be an Android or PC version so for that reason, and only that reason, OmniFocus isn’t for everybody.

Whereas it’s occurred to me that the third best writing tool is. It is for everyone. Maybe not in the form I have it, but otherwise yes, it is.

By chance, three writers separately talked to me this week about not writing. It came in different forms as one finds she struggles with writing well to deadlines, another is annoyed at herself for not having written and the third is concerned that she won’t get a particular thing written in time for her deadline.

Let me add myself to the mix: I’m a writer concerned about getting several projects finished.

So it’s all of us. Including you.

And I think we should simultaneously lighten up and buckle down. I think, too, that a very small bit of perspective helps us: for instance, the way I heard from these other writers has helped me feel better about my own worries.

For I know that they’d each think the one who is annoyed with herself is actually doing well. They’d think that the one concerned about hitting a particular deadline is admirably doing something about it. And as for the one who is struggling to write well to deadlines, I’d give an arm to write how she does.

Actually, that last one is threatening to check in with me to see that I’ve worked on a particular project. That’s actively helping me.

It’s just that even the passive recognition that we’re all different yet we’re all the same and all inching forward is a reassurance.

We can and should lighten up in the sense of not beating ourselves around the head for believing we have failed to do something.

But the real reason to relax about that is not because it’s humane, it’s because you don’t have time. Forget what you haven’t done, sod the past, get writing now.

Lighten up and buckle down. I should make a poster.

For there was a fourth person this week. Someone I enjoyed talking with but is worried that writing is a lot of work.

Yep.

There’s no getting around it. Which means my third best writing tool is my supremely battered Captain’s Chair.

Women and losing

Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.

Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.

Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.

I want new.

And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.

It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.

Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.

I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.

No and nope.

That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.

For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.

I would like that to change now, please. And I work for the Writers’ Guild, it makes me proud that they’re doing something about it. Do join them, do join me in putting your name to the campaign too.

Now and Then

I’d like to know when things stop. The moment when something is done. I’m struggling to explain this but it’s on my mind a lot and I want to try. Let me have a go with an example.

If you write a book then at some point the manuscript is with the publisher and you’re done. You don’t know which point that is, though, or at least you don’t at the time because there’s always a chance you’ll have to do something more to it before it finally comes out.

Maybe publication is the moment. I’ve commissioned writers who wouldn’t respond to any request after they’d been paid and it happened enough that now I tell each new editor who hires me that I ain’t done until the piece is online or on the newsstand. Don’t wait to pay me, but I’m not leaving until we both know you don’t need me any more.

Except a piece of mine was published this week and I think it’s a good sample for another thing I’m pitching for. So as soon as it was out, I was pointing people to my new article.

Perhaps what I’m wondering is when new becomes old.

For instance, someone like Dar Williams releases a new album and at some point it stops being the new one. Long before her next is announced, you stop saying Emerald is new, you start calling it her latest. Then some day, somehow, you and I imagine she just thinks of it as one of her many releases.

It’s still a superb album but the heat of creation is over for her and the energy of discovering each track is over for me. I’m picking on her album because I like it so, because I’m listening to it again but also because I just went to check and it came out in 2015. What have I done since 2015?

Whether it’s an album or it’s the book she’s written since, there is still this furnace when everything is being made and anything can change and every pixel of it all is in your head. And then all of it is encased in the plastic of a shiny disc or the digits of a digital download, and it’s over. Except the singing of your song or the reading of your book until then that’s over too.

There must be a day, there must be a moment, when this happens.

In thinking about saying all this to you, wondering what you thought, I had the flippant idea that maybe the only absolute definite end to anything is death. But no, apparently not.

As ever, I don’t expect you or anyone to remember me past the end of this sentence but even when I die, my books will survive. I remember thinking this of the very first one, how BFI Television Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair will outlive me. At the very least, if some other author ever wants to write about Beiderbecke, their first job is prove to a publisher why their book is needed when someone has already covered the topic.

My name will at most live on in a muttered curse by that future author but the book itself will persist. Who knows, one day it might even start earning back the advance I got.

I framed the cover of that book and it’s on my wall with the date racing further into the past every second. It was published in 2012 and I think my second book would’ve been 2013 so clearly by then, Beiderbecke was no longer either new or my latest. But there is a day, an hour, an instant when it ceased to be either and I wish I knew when.

I wish I could work it out but I also wish I could’ve been conscious of the moment as it happened.

Manor House Station to Gibson Square

Perhaps ten or twelve years ago now, there was a comment on the internet that was wrong. I know. But this one stuck with me because it was so wrong that I took it as a personal affront even though it wasn’t directed at me, wasn’t about me, wasn’t about anything or anyone that had the slightest connection to me.

Except it did. It was a comment about drama and specifically about Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 television play The Knowledge. If you saw it, you remember it. This is the one following a group of people learning to become London cab drivers. The Knowledge is the name for the real-life process cabbies go through, a stunning test of human memory.

From Rosenthal’s script:

INT. WAITING ROOM, CARRIAGE OFFICE. DAY
BURGESS at the wall map

BURGESS: As laid down by the London Hackney Carriage Act of 1843, all the Knowledge means is that you commit to memory every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Every street – and what’s on every street. Every hotel, every club, every hospital, every department store, every shop, government building, theatre, cinema, restaurant, art gallery, park, church, synagogue, mosque etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And etcetera. You name it, you’ve got to know it.

This is all true and it still is today but here’s Rosenthal talking about turning the Knowledge into a drama:

“…it sounded a fascinating idea. Or – as usual – half a fascinating idea. I took a cab back home to sit and worry about it in comfort, and a few weeks later, the second half shyly suggested itself. It was simply to people the story with characters who, in doing the Knowledge, would achieve some glimmering of self-knowledge.”

That quote is from his book, The Chain with The Knowledge and Ready When You Are, Mr McGill. It’s a trio of scripts in a book I’ve had for thirty years and have re-read so often that it’s dog-eared. It’s a favourite book and I’m minded of it now, talking to you, because I’ve been trying to read a script a day this year.

You can argue that this resolution hasn’t gone well. Today is the 130th day of 2018 – sorry to break that to you – and I just finished reading my 299th script. It’s a failure of discipline but I can live with it.

Script number 289, last Saturday, was The Knowledge. I’ve got the broadcast show somewhere but I think on VHS so I had a look for some clips on YouTube. I only found the entire play there. When I play this now the video leaps to about 24 minutes in. I didn’t ask it to. Scroll back to the start and get yourself some tea.

I’m uncomfortable that someone’s work is just chucked on YouTube for free but I did buy the script, I did buy the VHS, I don’t believe The Knowledge is commercially available and, besides, there was no possible way I could stop myself watching.

You can over-praise something but, on consideration, The Knowledge is perfect. Well, I’m not certain about the theme song, I feel that’s dated a bit, but otherwise it’s perfect in the way that I think television drama should be. You’re just entirely and completely with these characters in that story, you’re not conscious how well constructed it all is.

By god, though, it’s a masterclass in writing. Every beat, every syllable is precisely placed and then I think also precisely acted. Nigel Hawthorne played Mr Burgess and that speech of his about what the Knowledge is ought to be death for any actor.

It’s exposition and if you think that’s a long speech, it is only a fraction of the full thing. Hang on, let me check. Burgess enters on page 86 of the paperback and with flashbacks to how various characters got to be there, he finishes his speech on page 94.

No current television drama would allow that and they’d say because it’s too long, too boring. I’m afraid I think Rosenthal is evidence that the reason is few people can write that well. The flashbacks are substantial but still, the sheer tonnage of information Mr Burgess gives out is overwhelming yet beat after beat, line after line, pause after pause, it is mesmerising.

Then just to demonstrate his skill in dialogue, Rosenthal will next have a scene with maybe one exchange between two characters. Just one exchange but it tells you a bit of plot if necessary plus you get the entire character of both people, you understand their world view, you see how they’re actually diametrically opposed and yet also how they don’t realise that.

And then the lead character of the play, Chris (Mick Ford), will set off on his scooter to learn the first route that London cabbies have to know. Manor House Station to Gibson Square.

CHRIS: One down. Only four hundred and fifty-nine to go.

Here’s the internet comment that so rankled me that it came back to mind the moment I knew I wanted to talk to you about The Knowledge. Someone somewhere said that to enjoy The Knowledge at all, you have to be a London cabbie.

For the first and I believe last time, I replied to an internet eejit. I wrote a sentence giving the letter F a three-star rating.

When I pitch a drama idea or even when I’m just thinking about one, the first thing I’m likely to say is what it’s about. But then I say that as fast as I can because what I really want to get onto is the next part: what it’s really about.

Thirty-nine years after it aired and after I first saw it, I’m still trying to write as well as The Knowledge. And I’m also still intending to go from Manor House Station to Gibson Square one day.

The joys of YouTube being what they are, though, someone has already done it for me.

Some day your prints will come

I’m reasonably sure this is true, I think I’ve got this figured out. Johannes Gutenberg was a wuss. He’s done the sales talk, he’s got the investors, he’s got really impressive and quite smelly equipment and he’s standing there when someone asks if this is the printing press that will revolutionise the world.

And he goes uh-huh. Nods. Gives every impression that the answer is yes, that the answer is definitely yes, this is it, we’re done, I am fantastic and don’t you ever doubt it.

But the printing press doesn’t work.

It never worked.

It did always look like it should if only you had the right toner cartridge. And certainly paper goes in here and comes out there unless you’re doing something very stupid. You. Not it. You.

From 1450 until his death in 1468, Gutenberg covered it up by hand-writing every book in existence. Many, many times. You’ve got to give the guy some credit for patience, diligence and exceptionally clear handwriting, but you can’t give him credit for the printing press because it never bloody worked.

If he were alive today, he’d be so relieved that it was all over. For here’s my printer. I had to search the house for it and I’m only surprised that I didn’t find yours at the same time.

For one brief moment this week, I thought I needed to print out something official. I didn’t, I was able to open the PDF I was sent, add a signature to it and send it back as PDF without taking my hands off my Mac’s keyboard, but for a moment there, I thought I did. So began Day One of the hunt for the printer and later this week on Day 417, I found it up there on a high shelf.

There is a part of me that wants to get it down, to plug it in to the mains and to not plug it into my Mac because it’s supposed to be a wireless printer.

But then the rest of me remembers that the wireless bit was a joke and that anyway, this is a printer.

Printers never work because they never have.

If Gutenberg were alive today, he’d be busted. I’m just saying.

Two minutes back

Please stop me. If Angela asks me when dinner will be ready and it’s almost done, I will call out something like “Two minutes back”. It’s a quote. I’m quoting. While I’m cooking.

I say cooking, it’s usually more heating and stirring and microwaving, but that’s not the point. The point is that my everyday conversation is riddled with quotes that nobody knows, at least until Angela happens upon some film or TV show that I got it from.

For it all comes from TV, radio and film. Imagine if I’d read the classics when I was younger. I might’ve become a weather bore every time the wind was in the east but at least that allusion could sometimes make sense. “Two minutes back” never does. Back to what?

It’s from Sports Night. I have no measurable interest, knowledge, experience or even really awareness of sport, but this show that first aired 20 years ago is a favourite. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing done as a half-hour comedy and set behind the scenes of a TV sports show. This should be easy to imagine because that’s exactly what this is.

Take a look at this example. It’s the opening few minutes of an episode and I guarantee that you’ll wish it were the whole thing.

 

I should say right now that you can see a lot on YouTube but the only place to get the show itself is on DVD. Well, if you’re in the US you can stream it on Netflix or buy it on iTunes.

Or come round to my place.

I do relish its moments when characters will be in a heated argument and then, because the TV show’s cameras are now live, will be smiling, happy hosts until the commercial break and wallop, right back at it. I don’t know why I relish that so much, except that it’s a heightened dramatic situation that’s also real. I’ve done that, to a vastly smaller extent, in radio, and that turn-on-a-second move from personal to professional, that mental juggling of conflicting demands on your head, it’s gorgeous.

It also forces arguments into bite-sized chunks which is fantastic because drama does that anyway and here the need to stop and start is imposed, it’s an external pressure and you can feel the frustration. You can feel how when it’s released, when they’ve gone to commercial and can speak freely, that the next part of the row burns out of them. Plus even as they’ve been professional and talking on air about some sports thing I’ll never comprehend, you know the real drama has been continuing in their heads so when they can speak freely, the argument has moved on.

That’s an amazing thing to me. It means the Sports Night scripts pummel through arguments and issues at an incredibly artificial rate yet specifically because of the context, it feels natural and uncontrived. It feels real.

This is a comedy I’m talking about and I actually hesitated calling it that because for me, it’s drama. There is a very quiet laugh track in the early episodes, the result of the producers not wanting one and the network insisting and presumably some editor accidentally leaning on the volume control to minimise it. And it is also very, very, very funny.

Yet it’s the drama that keeps me coming back to this show – and I do keep coming back. I can visibly see me putting the DVD boxset in my car boot after having had to pay a gigantic import duty to the post office and saying aloud “I hope you’re worth it”. That must’ve been around 2001 or 2002 and it was. It is.

This show about the making of a sports show runs for 45 episodes of around 22 minutes apiece. What’s that? Something like 16 and a half hours of television. I watched the first one that weekend I got the DVD – and then I watched the following 44 before Monday.

I’ve done that binge about four times since.

And I’m in the middle of another one now. It’s been years since my DVD player was even connected to my TV set but I found a way to stream any video from my Mac to my TV set so I was looking through my shiny discs for what I’d want to see. I only meant to watch one episode of Sports Night. That was Tuesday. It’s now Friday and I’ve seen 15 episodes. Again.

This is a series about the making of a show and much of it takes place during the time that fictitious sports programme is on air. It has an awful lot of commercials. And every time this show-within-a-show cuts to a commercial, a character in its gallery will announce how long they’ve got before they come back from commercial.

Ask me how long before I watch the next episode.

Simply the best, ish, sort of, a bit

There is something wrong with us. All of us. Even you. Don’t look at me like that. The internet has enabled people to mistype vitriol over what they don’t like and while you’re not like that, there is something of the opposite in you: if you like something, I think you can be loudly enthusiastic about it.

That’s surely no bad thing, except there is something in all of us that makes it easy to go too far. You can see it the most clearly with haters who will declare something on television to be the Worst. Episode. Ever.

There are people who stopped watching certain shows and regularly and proudly remind the world of this fact. The world could give a damn.

The world doesn’t give much of one when we like something either but I, for instance, cannot stop myself running up to you like an excited puppy when I see or read or hear something I think is wonderful.

I just think that there is a tendency for people who like things to need to further. It’s not enough that they enjoyed it, it has to be the Best Thing Ever. And there is a problem with that. It can affect the very thing you like.

I’m thinking of what happened after the original Star Trek series was cancelled in the 1960s. There was a lot to like about that show, there was enough to dislike, but really it was a lively action/adventure one-hour television drama. It engendered fans, though, and perhaps was the first example of really passionate and large-scale fandom, for most of whom it wasn’t enough to just enjoy the show.

I’m all for engagement and apparently there are scientists who went into their careers specifically because of Star Trek and I can’t comprehend how wonderful that is.

But the short version is that fans regarded Trek as important and by the time the first film based on the show was made, this attitude had infested the crew. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is pompous. Self-important. Boring. It’s also visually exquisite at times but there’s only so long you can stare at a painting.

Trek may be vulnerable to being pompous, though. I just read the screenplays for the first six of the movies and the worst of them, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, has a note on the title page. It’s a little lecture about the cosmos and how “the incredible beauty of this latest Star Trek voyage” is based in scientific reality. There should be an afterword explaining what the dialogue is based in.

Still, watch the last episode of the original TV show and then the first movie. I think the incredible difference is down to years of fans talking up the importance of Trek and its makers coming to believe them.

That’s one thing, but here’s another. The film flopped but it was so earthshakingly expensive that Paramount gambled on earning back some of the money by getting their TV division to make a sequel for six bucks.

They did and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is cheaper. (Based on the official budgets, this was made for a third of the price of the first one. ) Grab a Trek fan, ask him or her, and there’s a fair chance they’ll still say Star Trek II is the best of the films. There is definitely a vocal contingent that would say Best Film Ever.

Compared to the first movie, it is very good. It has life and action and smaller-scale yet higher stakes. And it has Ricardo Montalban.

But it’s a cartoon. The makers swung far the other way, doing everything to make a crowd-pleaser instead of an important statement about the future of humanity. And because it was a such a success, every Star Trek film until the 2009 JJ Abrams-led ones has had a certain similar tone. A bit flat. A bit empty.

I know I’m reducing the creative contribution of hundreds and maybe thousands of people down to generalities but, still, fans talked up Trek into a pompous misfire and then the course-correction resulted in a whole series of films that are popcorn.

I like popcorn. I’m just never going to say to you that it or anything else is the greatest thing ever.

Although I admit this all popped into my head because I’ve also just read Rose, the new Doctor Who novel by Russell T Davies and it is tremendous. Just the Best Thing Ever.

Speaking and not speaking

Earlier this week I was working on a friend’s book: part proofreading, part commenting, part editing. It was a joy because the book is just so very, very good. But it’s also a joy because it’s her first one and yet it’s got none of the stilted caution of a new writer. It’s got none of the hesitancy.

It does have some of the padding, but you can fix that.

What this writer has is the benefit of knowing her subject extremely well and having run workshops on it. At her best, this isn’t text on a page, it’s her talking to you, working with you, just as I presume she does in workshops.

Actually it’s a business non-fiction title and I first met her because she was advising me on aspects of my work. So sometimes I’ll be reading a section and I can see her as she was a couple of years ago, sitting opposite me across a coffee shop table and telling me these same things.

When you and I are done talking today, I’m off to have a coffee with her again and to enthuse about her book.

But there is something else I’ll do. There’s something else I’ve realised. This skill of writing like you’re talking is superb but it also has to be a con. You must look like you’re doing it, you must look like this is all flowing naturally and conversationally, when really it isn’t.

Really it needs to be structured. It can’t actually be like speech because when we talk to someone, our sentences run on for hours. Those sentences make complete sense but when they’re written down, they lose that and become long or confusing.

I’m telling you what I think you already know and I’m telling myself what I think I’ve long realised but working on this book brought it back to me very strongly. This writer has more verve and skill than I did in my first writings and I hope I’ll convey that to her. Because the next step of moving from conversational to only apparently conversational is going to take a lot of work.

She can do it or I wouldn’t be saying this to you before going to meet her.

Plus I’ve already told her the truth by text. “You know how people give you criticism in shit sandwiches?” I texted her. “This book is two slices of excellent with a filling of superb.”

I utterly relished doing this work and I am so looking forward to talking to her about it. I’m just also conscious that I’ve made about seven hundred comments on the manuscript. I think I’ll talk a lot before I show her that bit.